Bill to require state to recognize 229 Alaskan tribes

From left, Katie Price, Joel Price, Thea Duncan, Alayna Duncan and Nancy Barnes perform with the Yees Ku Oo Dancers. (Nov. 16, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

More than 200 federally recognized tribes in Alaska would also be officially recognized in the state under a bill that is gaining momentum with bipartisan support.

The bill is largely symbolic and would not change how tribal governments already operate, since each of the 229 Native Alaska tribes are already federally recognized, lawmakers said. The legislation would instead enshrine in state law what has been the status of these tribes for years and formally recognize tribal sovereignty.

“Just a simple act of recognition can heal decades of hurt,” said Richard Chalyee Eesh Peterson, president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. “One of the things that will happen for the larger community of Alaska, this will normalize the thought of tribes as sovereigns.”

The bill introduced by Republican Rep. Chuck Kopp has gained 17 Democratic, Republican and Independent co-sponsors and was heard by the House committee, the Juneau Empire reported.

The state has tacitly recognized tribal sovereignty in the past, but has not acknowledged the presences of those entities within the state, Kopp said.

“I think it comes down to a fear based in a sense of if we recognize another sovereign entity that the federal government recognizes, are we losing some power, some authority as a state,” he said.


There are also financial benefits in state recognition.

Federally recognized tribes receive funding from the federal government for services they provide to their citizens, relieving the state of some financial burden. Under current laws, jurisdictional conflicts complicate tribes’ abilities to receive federal funds, said Ken Truitt, a staff member in Kopp’s office.

“The lack of recognition just creates a roadblock,” Truitt said. “Getting more resources isn’t going to magically happen because of this bill, but it’s our hope this helps to lift that roadblock.”